Scaling toilets through a public-private partnership and placing sanitation for women first

In this blog, David Gallagher, CEO and co-founder of Aerosan Sustainable Sanitation  – a sanitation enterprise operating in Nepal – outlines how Aerosan’s public toilet and waste to reuse approach is helping tackle the sanitation crisis.

Aerosan public toilet in Kathmandu

AeroSan, was founded in Halifax, Canada in 2014, with a subsidiary Nepalese social enterprise, AeroSan Sustainable Sanitation. Its mission is to provide sustainable sanitation solutions to the world’s most vulnerable populations, especially following natural disasters.

AeroSan operates in overcrowded, urban areas of Kathmandu where there is one public toilet per 50,000 inhabitants and open defecation is commonplace. Aerosan is being recognised by the local authorities as a solution.

Developing a public toilet model that challenges the sanitation crisis

Following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal we found that, beyond the damage inflicted by the earthquake, Kathmandu was facing a sanitation crisis.

Working with local NGOs, engineers, and municipal governments, we sought to design a public toilet which addresses multiple challenges:

  • A severe shortage of sanitation facilities – of the 84 public toilets that serve the growing population in Kathmandu Valley only a third are operational
  • Inaccessible, unhygienic and unsafe sanitation facilities for the vulnerable, providing poor services for women in particular
  • Environmental degradation with 95% of waste dumped untreated into rivers and lakes
  • High costs of water to service the toilets in a water scarce region and a lack of systems to remove, transport or dispose of waste safely

Our Solution

We designed a public toilet which provides a modern, clean, and safe space for users and is complete with sanitary and menstrual health facilities designed for women and the disabled. After an initial pilot, we constructed a further six blocks and called them Sanitation Hubs, because of the range of services they provide.

The toilets also incorporate an in-situ anaerobic digester which produces renewable energy (biogas) from human waste which is used in an adjacent tea house/café. Finally, we incorporated rainwater harvesting and greywater re-cycling systems. The Hubs use local technology and expertise.

To ensure cleanliness and hygiene, Temple University’s School of Public Health developed an evidence-based cleanliness protocol, which we deploy today.

The impact has been significant – there has been 46% increase in women users and a 40 % increase in handwashing. User numbers have doubled and enough biogas is generated for a tea house.

The Hubs have become attractive community spaces – with shops offering sanitary supplies, tea houses, shower facilities and Wi-Fi. They have drawn local vendors and with that a high footfall.

Inside an Aerosan public toilet (female side)

Strategic partnerships underpin our model 

Key to the success of these community public toilets is our relationship with two key local partners.

  1. Nepalese government and the local municipalities of Kathmandu and neighbouring Lalitpur

Since Aerosan’s arrival, the Nepalese government has developed a policy, and committed budget, to building a Sanitation Hub in every ward of Kathmandu and Lalitpur (60 in total) over the next 5 years.

Through a public private partnership (PPP), the government will match external funding with access to land and funds for the Hub’s outer structure. Operations will be governed by a 10-year design, build and operate contract.

The model is pay-for-use and if there are 800 users per day, each Hub can generate a small monthly profit after paying staff, cleaning materials and maintenance. Scaling the network of Hubs to 60 under the existing PPP agreement will enable us to be economically viable whilst meeting a number of social objectives.

2. The Independent Sanitation Workers Co-operative (ISWC) of Dalit women

We employ 20 female members of the Co-op (from a total of 500 members) with dignified, living wage jobs. These women are fully trained to work within the Hubs and take a critical role in all aspects of operational management.

They have been instrumental in distributing health kits and food to informal Dalit settlements during the series of COVID-19 lockdowns we’ve been challenged with.

As part of our model we helped set up this Co-op – which also include a saving and loan fund and offers training in literacy and numeracy.

Co-op members as toilet operators

What does the future hold?

Over the past 3 years, we have been part of a catalytic shift in perception around the role well managed, high quality, public toilet models can play in solving the sanitation crisis. Previously, community toilets were unattractive and dirty with many associated risks. The Hubs offer a platform for improved sanitation and economic livelihood.

There is strong alignment with the municipalities which is demonstrated by their investment in our partnership over the next 10 years.

Our strategy is to build a further 60 Hubs between now and 2026 in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Pokhara cities. These will be used an estimated 17 million times by low and middle – income customers every year, employ 200 Dalit Women and prevent many metric tons of waste entering the environment – whilst achieving financial sustainability.